Jonah's Sukkah

October 18, 2019
Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove

Hol Hamoed Sukkot

When I was growing up in Los Angeles, there were two things my family always did without fail when we came home from synagogue at the end of Yom Kippur. First, obviously, we broke the fast with lox and bagels. Second, as the final guests left, my father and my brothers and I would begin building our sukkah. Odd as it may have been to roll one holiday directly into the other, at the time I never questioned the tradition. It was something fun to do after a long day in synagogue, and now that I live in the urban jungle of Manhattan, it is something I miss doing with my own children.

It was only years later, in my rabbinical studies, that I discovered that Joseph Karo, the author of the authoritative sixteenth-century code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch, had codified this custom long ago. One must make every effort, he writes, to go seamlessly and zealously from one festival to the other, without interruption, by building a sukkah immediately at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. What a sweet feeling to discover years later that the Cosgrove boys were fulfilling not just a demand of my mother, but a commandment from an authority of approximately equal stature – God.

This morning I want to explore this custom from my childhood a bit more. I want to look into the connection between the two holidays, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and ask what draws this week’s festival into dialogue with our recent Day of Atonement. At first blush, the two holidays could not be more different. One is observed in the synagogue for a day, the other in the home for a week. One is about spiritual austerity; the other is the most physical of holidays: building a sukkah and then eating and sleeping in it, circling the Sanctuary, and of course shaking the lulav and etrog. The texts we read on Yom Kippur draw our attention to upstanding moral behavior and the severity of God’s judgment. To the degree that Sukkot has a text, it is Kohelet/Ecclesiastes, a book that reminds us of the vanity of all human pursuit, the happenstance nature of existence, and the unavoidable fact that one fate awaits us all, rich and poor, righteous and wicked. Sukkot is rooted in history, a re-creation of the Israelites’ desert wanderings. Yom Kippur, by contrast, is not tethered to any historical experience. Yes, the two observances sit adjacent one to the other, but aside from that calendrical proximity, is there anything that connects Yom Kippur and Sukkot? Anything that might help explain why we are commanded to build a sukkah immediately after Yom Kippur concludes?

The answer, I believe, can be found in one of the lesser-known scenes of Yom Kippur, from the story of Jonah. If you are not fully familiar with the story, Jonah is the anti-prophet of the Bible. The man who, when God calls on him to tell the people of the city of Nineveh to repent their evil ways, instead flees by ship in the other direction, is thrown overboard, swallowed by a whale, and then spit out onto shore. After drying himself off, Jonah finally does call on Nineveh to repent, and the Ninevites listen to him and are saved from God’s wrath. The tale makes for good messaging on Yom Kippur – a day given over to the theme of repentance. But the tale as I just told it, as taught in Hebrew School, misses out on the critical, enigmatic, fourth and final chapter of the book. In that chapter, after God has suspended the divine decree of punishment, after Jonah has saved the city from destruction, Jonah – instead of taking a victory lap on a job well done – slumps into depression, and in a fit of despair, bursts out in frustration at God, saying he was right all along to flee in the ship when he was first called.

It is not altogether clear what is the root of Jonah’s anger and toxic malaise. He is embittered at God’s inscrutable ways; he is angry that such an evil city has been forgiven so quickly, and he no doubt wonders why, if God already had a plan in mind, he himself needed to be brought in to get involved. In a burst of rage, he cries out to God: “Please Lord, take my life, for I would rather die than live.” (4:3) It seems better to Jonah to die than to try to make sense of this whimsical, nonsensical world. And lest you are wondering where I am going with this, you should know that this entire scene – this outburst against God – takes place where? Under a sukkah. A sukkah that Jonah had built east of Nineveh – his planned viewing stand from which to watch Nineveh’s destruction, that became the shelter in which he sulked as the city was saved.

So that is the full story of Jonah. And even more important than the content, the “what” of the Jonah story, is the timing, the “when” of our reading it: during the final stretch of Yom Kippur. The very hour when we pray that we will be forgiven like the Ninevites and hopefully be sealed into the Book of Life for the year to come. The thing about Yom Kippur is that, while we hope our lives will be filled with health and prosperity in the year to come, none of us actually know the will or ways of God. All we know is that there are no promises, and no matter how earnestly a person may pray on Yom Kippur, in any given year, on any given day, there will be bad people who will prosper and good people who will suffer. Just yesterday, just days after Yom Kippur, I spent the day at the cemetery with a bereaved synagogue family who lost a brother, a father, a husband, and a grandfather, a man who was, if nothing else, a mensch through and through. We do our best; we pray for forgiveness; and still, this world makes no promises. When you look at it like that, you begin to understand Jonah’s anger as he pouts under his sukkah, plunged into despair, exasperated at a God whose ways are so arbitrary, preordained and yet inexplicable. Can Jonah really be blamed for throwing up his hands and wondering what the point of it all is anyway? Haven’t we all felt that way at some time or other?

Which is why, I think, it is precisely at the end of Yom Kippur, with the Jonah story fresh in our minds, that we are commanded to go home and build a sukkah, literally acting out the final scene of Jonah. We know the precarious nature of existence; we know how capricious life can be. If nothing else, the impermanent structure of a sukkah is meant to remind us of the delicate and uncertain nature of our world. Just yesterday, the synagogue had to take down our rooftop sukkah because the high winds made it a hazard not just to anyone inside it, but to anyone on the street below it. One goes home from Yom Kippur to immediately build a sukkah as a physical reminder, should we need one, that in this world, there are no promises. We are not so different from Jonah. It would be the most human thing to do to sit in our sukkah sulking like Jonah, despairing at the fragility of our lives.

And that is precisely where the message of Sukkot comes into play. Yom Kippur and Sukkot begin with the same premise: life is fragile and limited, and God’s ways are ultimately unknowable. But their responses are totally different. Yes, Sukkot is all about the happenstance nature of existence, but it demands of us that, given the uncertainty, we rejoice in the blessings we do have. Another name for Sukkot is Hag Ha-asif, the festival of gathering, an agricultural holiday that reminds that more than dwelling on what we don’t have, we need to celebrate what we do have. We have to thank God for the harvest of our lives. Sukkot is also called Zman Simhateinu, the time of our rejoicing. It is a festival that teaches that awareness of our mortality not only need not throw us into depression, but should prompt us to leverage life for all it is has to offer, to squeeze our loved ones as tight as we can, and never to take for granted the blessings we enjoy.

The book of Ecclesiastes is fully aware of the delicate sukkah-like nature of human existence. But its conclusion, its take-home message, is different from Jonah’s. To paraphrase: “Enjoy happiness with the person you love all the fleeting days of life that you have been granted . . . whatever is in your power to do, do with all your might.” (9:8-10). It would be understandable to walk through this world like Jonah, with perpetually wounded sensibility, angry at God, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Sukkot calls on us to fight that urge, this week and year-round: to respond to uncertainty with love, to fragility with strength, and to unwarranted hurt with unjustifiable love. It is this thought that I often share with young couples as they get married under a huppah, the wedding canopy which is a conscious reference to a sukkah. What is getting married if not the declaration by two people that in the relatively brief time we have in this world, we choose to spend that time with someone we love who loves us back? Unto itself, a sukkah is morally neutral, a physical reminder of something all of us know already: Life is fragile. The power of Sukkot is in the question it asks of all of us: Given that fragility, will we sit and sulk like Jonah or will we respond with lives filled with meaning, with compassion, with patience, with forgiveness, and with generosity of deed and spirit?

Friends, some of us build sukkot. Here in the city I imagine most of don’t; I don’t. But all of us live in sukkot – this week and every week of our lives. Why do we build sukkot immediately after Yom Kippur? To remind us of the choice we have, the choice of how we will live our lives in the next year and years to come. It is not up to God; it is up to each one of us. May we rise to the challenge. In this uncertain and often unfair world, may we see the beauty, may we express the gratitude, and may we fill our days with loving and purposeful deeds that express our highest hopes for ourselves and for this imperfect world in which we are blessed to live.